Goodbye, Tennessee


On October 1, 2016, Josh Malone and I were standing next to each other on the sideline at Georgia’s Sanford Stadium as time painfully ticked off the clock. I turned to him and made a comment that not only summed up the game, but which also turned out to be prophetic regarding our season.

“Man, this is like riding a roller coaster.”

I know a lot of Tennessee fans were feeling the same way.

At the time, the Bulldogs were facing a first-and-15 on our 47-yard line. There were 19 seconds left in the fourth quarter, and we were up 28–24. If our defense made the stop, we’d win the game and improve to 5–0 for the season.

We had gotten this close to victory in much the same way that we had gone undefeated: by coming from behind. Just three weeks before, in front of nearly 157,000 people (the largest crowd in college football history) at Bristol Motor Speedway, we had trailed Virginia Tech by 14 points in the Battle at Bristol before roaring back to win 45–24. We followed that up two weeks later by climbing out of a 21-point hole to beat Florida 38–28, a win that ended an 11-year losing streak. And now we’d overcome a 17-point deficit on the road against Georgia — in my home state — to put ourselves on the verge of another unlikely victory.

Like I said: roller coaster!

But then, Georgia’s quarterback scrambled left and threw a bomb to his wide receiver streaking down the left sideline. Touchdown.

My only thought was, Here we go again. We got this.

Georgia had been penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct during the touchdown celebration, so the Bulldogs kicked off from their own 20. Evan Berry’s 20-yard return put the ball at the Georgia 48. An offside penalty on the Bulldogs was then tacked onto the kickoff to put us on their 43 and gave us a shot at the end zone. When I got out on the field with the offense, there were only four seconds left. A field goal was out of the question. We could either try a short pass and lateral to move the ball downfield, or take the big shot with a Hail Mary.

We lined up trips left with Josh Malone, Josh Smith and Ethan Wolf. Jauan Jennings was lined up by himself to the right — on the backside. I was in the shotgun and Alvin Kamara was in the backfield beside me. We called a timeout once we saw Georgia’s defensive alignment. There was no panic as we huddled. We knew what we had to do.

When we came back out, we switched Malone from the left side to the right because we knew the Bulldogs would want to double-team him. Jauan flipped to the strong side.

I’ve been asked countless times if I was nervous at that moment. Honestly … I wasn’t.

I often think back to something Peyton Manning once shared: “Pressure is just something you feel when you don’t know what you are doing.”

We had gone over this very scenario. Every week in practice, Coach Jones would have us run through various situational plays, like Hail Marys. You never know when you’re going to need a play like that, but eventually you will. So we were ready.

Our center Dylan Wiesman hiked the ball to me. I dropped straight back a few steps to allow the receivers to get down the field, while Alvin and the O-line kept the defenders from getting to me. As I released the ball, all I was thinking was, Give it enough arc and put it where our guys can make a play.

There was a crowd of eight or nine guys — including five Georgia defensive backs — in the left corner of the end zone. But Jauan out leaped everyone for the ball and….

Wait, did that really just happen?

I looked to the sideline and everyone was frozen.

Did he catch that?

I saw the ref’s arms go straight up. The reaction of the Tennessee faithful in the stands said it all.

We were surrounded by 90,000 Georgia fans, but the only sound in the stadium was of Vols fans singing “Rocky Top.”

A Hail Mary for the win in a rivalry game as time runs out — it is the stuff you dream about when you grow up playing football. You play it out in your backyard or on Madden. But those are just dreams and video games. This was real.

I have played football since I was 5 years old, and this was my first.

Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire

Originally, I had committed to Arizona State, but when Tennessee hired Coach Jones, he and Coach Bajakian started recruiting me heavily. They came to my home in Alpharetta, Georgia, with Coach Azzani, the wide receivers coach, the night before my official visit. I thought it would just be a brief chat since I would be seeing them again on campus the next day.

My parents and I talked with them for a while. After about an hour, I excused myself and went upstairs to finish studying for a major exam. When I came back down an hour later, the coaches were still there, talking up the Volunteers to my parents. They stayed so long I almost thought they were going to spend the night and drive me to Knoxville themselves.

The official visit was perfect. Not only does Tennessee football have a long and storied history, especially when it comes to successful quarterbacks, but it also has a really strong engineering program — one that offers an undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering. Professor Robert Bond, my current advisor, actually came to campus on that cold Saturday morning of my visit to give me and my parents a tour of the engineering department. The beautiful campus (I dare you to go to Knoxville and not fall in love with the place), state-of-the-art facilities, and family atmosphere of the team made Tennessee a great fit for me.

When I reported to Knoxville to start classes and team workouts that summer, it felt like home almost immediately. Whether I was hiking the Bluffs, sitting in Econ 201 in the Haslam College of Business, or just meeting new people from across the country and the world, there was something about the place that seemed … right. Like I belonged there.

I was supposed to redshirt my freshman year, which would give me a chance to learn the offense and gain a little weight while making the adjustment to college life. With the help of Brian Russell, my Thornton Academic Center Advisor, we laid out an academic plan. My goal was to complete the five-year AE degree in four years and add a minor in business administration.     

But in the eighth game of the 2013 season, Justin Worley, our starting quarterback, hurt his thumb in the first half of the game.

As halftime approached, the coaches told me that I would be starting the second half.

The first snap of my college career was against Alabama.

In Tuscaloosa.

We didn’t win. I completed 5 of 12 passes for 75 yards, with no interceptions. I also led a touchdown drive — the first of 2013 for any opponent in Bryant–Denny Stadium. I was young and inexperienced, but for a freshman who had been thrown into the lineup against the No. 1 team in the nation in the second half of a 45–10 blowout … well, there are definitely worse ways to start a career.

Justin’s injury turned out to be worse than expected, and he was ruled out indefinitely. I made my first start at quarterback on the road at 10th-ranked Missouri. We lost 31–3. But there was hardly time to think too much about the disappointment. The week after that, I was going to start my first home game in Neyland Stadium — against No. 7 Auburn.

I get it, everyone says that their stadium is the loudest and that their fans are the best. But Neyland Stadium — and the die-hard Vol fans who wear orange and white and pack it 102,455 strong every weekend — make it a really special place to play football.  

A few weeks before the Alabama game, we had played Georgia at home. We were down 17–10 with just under two minutes left in the third quarter. Georgia lined up to punt deep in their own territory. Jalen Reeves-Maybin blocked the punt and Devaun Swafford scooped the ball up and ran it back 15 yards for a touchdown. Tie game.

At that moment, Neyland Stadium got so loud that it felt like the ground itself was shaking. I couldn’t hear what anybody next to me was saying. I couldn’t even hear myself think.

And that was just when I had been on the sideline. Now I was actually going to start there.

I remember standing in the tunnel before the Auburn game, linked arm in arm with my teammates. I looked out at the stands and the screaming fans. Then I looked on the field as The Pride of the Southland Band moved into their iconic “Power T” formation. There was so much excitement and passion. I’ll never forget that feeling for as long as I live.

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Even though I will be around campus one more semester to complete my final six hours, this still feels like goodbye. It’s weird knowing that I won’t be going to another UT practice or walk-through. One of my favorite things about playing football here was coming into the locker room after a long day of classes, relaxing, and then going out and working on my craft with the people I love, my brothers. And there was no better feeling than the one after a win, when the whole team would stand in front of The Pride Band, arms locked, as it played the “Tennessee Waltz.”

The opportunity to go to college and play a game that you love is a unique and special one. There is a lot of glory, a lot of pain, and a lot of work. I don’t think many people really understand the effort and hours that players put in year round. The grind really brings us together, and creates lifelong bonds that can never be broken.

Of course I’ll miss Neyland Stadium — running into the checkerboard end zone and playing in front of some of the most loyal and dedicated fans in college football. I’ll miss away games, too, because the Vols’ fans travel better than any other fanbase. I’ll never forget when we played at Texas A&M in October, and the stands behind one of the end zones at Kyle Field were completely covered in orange.

Thanks to my coaches, my teammates and the people I’ve met at Tennessee, I’ve grown so much since I first stepped on campus as a freshman. Mentors like Tim Miller, our team chaplain, understood the stressful situations we were often in. His willingness to share the Gospel and his reflections on life really helped me through some of my toughest times. And Coach Brandon Myles, one of our strength coaches, pushed me every day to be my best. Antone Davis, a UT Hall of Famer and our Vol for Life Coordinator, kept his door open for me if I ever needed help — or even if I just wanted to talk.

They’re just three of the many, many people who helped me flourish as a quarterback and a role model.

When you play football at a school like Tennessee, you’re given a platform, and it’s up to you to use it wisely. This is why serving my community has always been an important part of my life, even when I was growing up in Georgia. And I wanted it to remain a big part of my life when I came to Knoxville.

Growing up, I looked up to several quarterbacks across the country. As I considered attending Tennessee, my list of role models grew: Condredge Holloway, the first black starting QB at Tennessee and in the SEC, who paved the way for me and so many others; the greatest QB of all time, Peyton Manning; Heisman Trophy runner-up Heath Shuler; and national championship winner Tee Martin, to name a few.

Kids come up to me now and tell me they want to be like me when they grow up. I can’t even describe how humbling that is, and it makes the work I do in the community — spending time with my buddy AJ Cucksey, who is battling cancer; meeting with kids who, like me, have alopecia; and helping Beads of Courage, which honors children who are facing serious illnesses — all the more important.

I am most grateful for all of the positive influences in my life, because there is so much negativity in the world. My faith has taught me that my life is about more than just myself. Helping someone else to have a better day or improving how they feel about themselves keeps me grounded. For me, being able to give back in a positive way is incredibly satisfying.

Whatever the next chapter of my life may hold in store, I’m committed to being a positive influence in my community and to those around me — and hopefully continuing to make Tennessee proud.

Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire

It’s been a thrilling ride, with some ups and some downs. And I’m sad it’s coming to an end — like any kid on his favorite roller coaster.

That Hail Mary against Georgia was the wildest finish I’ve ever been a part of. No question. Nothing comes close. It was astonishing, incredible, unreal.

But I wouldn’t say it was unbelievable, because we — me and my brothers on Team 120 — always believed in each other.

It’s pretty clear. If you are dedicated, and put in the time and effort, you can accomplish anything — even complete a game-winning Hail Mary with no time left on the clock.

You taught me that, Tennessee, and I thank you.

Go Vols!